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Uh, oh... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Uh, oh…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

I have always hated being told what to do. I prefer to be the boss. My blog is my own as and so are the opinions expressed within it. The odd thing is that I tend to write better when under the pressure to fulfill the needs of another. When left to my own devices my words tend to gather in formation for unorganized tangents or obscure ideas.  This challenge continues to plague me. Sometimes I allow my words to flow out and I either attempt to edit / correct myself or I simply delete what has been written. I’ve attempted to write about two Ken Russell films in one post several times.

As he is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers his movies hold themselves as personal time markers in my life. If I’m having trouble remembering what year or when something of note in my life has happened I very often only need to think about when I saw a Ken Russell film. Please note I also love a number of other great filmmakers, but Ken Russell Movies serve as folded pages in my personal history journal. Robert Altman and Claude Chabrol do not connect to my life tracking in the same way.

You see? There! It just happened again!

This variation of Norman Bates has paid the ticket price, but the fact that he snorts poppers and whispers to himself as he watches is more than a little worrying... Anthony Perkins Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

This variation of Norman Bates has paid the ticket price, but the fact that he snorts poppers and whispers to himself as he watches is more than a little worrying…
Anthony Perkins
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

All I really needed to write was that I am somewhat passionate about the work of Ken Russell. That would have sufficed. Yet the combination of my brain and the corresponding fingers had to type more information than is required.

Ugh! Here they go again — I am not an argumentative person. I prefer logic. It is not unusual to encounter cinephiles and individuals who sometime enjoy an Art House film who become not only dismissive but often upset to discover that three is a Ken Russell film fan sharing breathing space. I’ve always expected opposition to the art I love. I will only discuss my defense of Ken Russell if asked or pushed into an intellectual corner. For the record, I’ve been pushed into that corner more times than I can count. As I get older I care less about what others think of me. Not too long ago a pal pointed out that I had failed to not only speak up to defend my opinion related to both Andrzej Zulawski and Ken Russell.

Were you expecting restraint or restraints? Kathleen Turner fully utilizes a night stick to the delight of a cop/client, Randall Brady. This scene was cut for US release, but returned in place for the unrated video release. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Were you expecting restraint or restraints?
Kathleen Turner fully utilizes a night stick to the delight of a cop/client, Randall Brady. This scene was cut for US release, but returned in place for the unrated video release.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

At that moment my response seemed perfectly logical to me: Why should I waste my time to try and bend favor from another who felt it appropriate to take a pseudo-intellectual stab at two of my beloved film artists?

It seemed to me that no matter the reasoning, this would have been a waste of my energy.

My pal would have much preferred a potentially unpleasant film theory debate. My response to this individual’s dismissive comment had been,  “Well the audience tends to either love or hate artists like Zulawski and Russell. I understand why you might not agree with me.” For my pal, this was a defeatist way of handling a rude comment. Perhaps it was, but the truth is that it is rare for artists as impassioned, expressive and unique as these two to illicit a middle ground response. The very nature of their respective works aim to force a response. These two were Cinematic visionaries who fought against an industry that often tried to reign them in to conform to what would have been compromises.

No worries. It's just some mother observations to her daughter... Imogen Millais-Scott and Glenda Jackson Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

No worries. It’s just some mother observations to her daughter…
Imogen Millais-Scott and Glenda Jackson
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

See? I didn’t need to inform any person who might be reading my blog any of that. I just rapt my fingers with a book, but they continue for want of following my often mis-wired brain despite logic’s protest.

But seriously why would I want to see D.H. Lawrence given a Masterpiece Theatre approach? Why would I rather look just at the scenery and listen to a British actor read snippets from a once forbidden novel? I’d much rather watch Glenda Jackson face and dance down free-roaming cattle of Scottish longhorn cows. Or watch Alan Bates seductively and almost pornographically dissect and consume a fig. Why would I want to see Oliver Reed and Bates chat their hidden desires when I can watch them strip naked and literally wrestle the other into submission? Isn’t that what Merchant and Ivory were for?

It's quite lovely. A bit of male nudity in a rather polite critique of early 20th Century English Society... Rupert Graves A Room With A View James Ivory, 1985

It’s quite lovely. A bit of male nudity in a rather polite critique of early 20th Century English Society…
Rupert Graves
A Room With A View
James Ivory, 1985

Oh man. Blah, blah, blah. My fingers will not be restricted as easily as my tongue.

What I want to discuss are two Ken Russell films that were made in the 1980’s when Russell’s options with major studios had come to a close. These options closed not so much as a result of disdain for Mr. Russell, but Mr. Russell’s disdain for the industry majors.

I’ve discussed this with both my brain and my fingers and I think we have all reached an agreement: I will write a bit about each film. I will try to avoid losing myself in meandering thoughts.

My hope is that if you’re reading my blog and have never seen either of these two films that you might actually think about checking them out.

"A lady of the night, a man of the cloth. and a passion worth killing for!" Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984

“A lady of the night, a man of the cloth. and a passion worth killing for!”
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984

1984’s Crimes of Passion was born of anger. Screenwriter, Barry Sandler, had finally managed to get a screenplay he cared about produced. Making Love was a bold film for it’s time. The idea of presenting a romantic love story between two men who were not somehow psychotic or dangerous was a whole new idea for Hollywood. By the time Making Love was released the world of sexuality was about to slip from a revolution directly into of all-consuming danger. Conceived and made before AIDS changed everything but release just as it was about to, the movie failed to do what it intended. An outstanding Activist and a sex positive artist walked away from the experience of Making Love ‘s failure and the hypocritical Hollywood viewpoint to write a scathing satire called Crimes of Passion. Fresh from losing a battle to adapt/create an innovative and good film version of Evita to the big screen, Ken Russell was looking for a new project. After battling against unimaginative and Hollywood/Broadway suits, it is easy to imagine Ken Russell hugging Sandler’s screenplay.

I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen this highly entertaining and crude comical satire on everything from Identity, Marriage, Religion and most of all — Sexuality. I stopped counting a long time ago.

"It is truly an honor to be named Miss. Liberty 1984!" Kathleen Turner Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“It is truly an honor to be named Miss. Liberty 1984!”
Kathleen Turner
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

If you are easily offended by crass humor or graphic sexuality, this will not be your movie. But if up for the envelope-pushing fun, this movie will not disappoint. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion is all at once funny, raunchy, rude, eccentric, profane, politically incorrect, unapologetically erotic, surprisingly suspenseful, unhinged and neon-drenched — This is surreal romp that entertains and shocks from beginning to end. Russell had no fear of shock or of being camp. The shocks and camp are not only intended, they are celebrated. Anthony Perkins was more than game to poke fun at his “Norman Bates” role with precision. But make no mistake, this movie belongs to Kathleen Turner.

"Is this a cruise missile or a Pershing?" Kathleen Turner as China Blue inspecting The Dildo of Death. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Is this a cruise missile or a Pershing?”
Kathleen Turner as China Blue inspecting The Dildo of Death.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Turner’s participation in this film caused jaws to drop, but that reaction seems odd. It is very easy to understand why Kathleen Turner embraced the opportunity to play both Joanna Crane and China Blue. Aside from the fact that these two roles in one offered her a chance to act her ass off — it offered her the unique opportunity to demonstrate what she did best. This was Ms. Turner before the tragic illness of rheumatoid arthritis would force her into pause mode. In 1983 it seemed that the cinematic world was about to be hers. In fact she was at the very top of the A List, but she was in many ways imprisoned by an industry caught in contradictory conflict. From 1980 to 1981 everything changed within the world of Hollywood Cinema. She was an instant and well deserved movie star after she not only pulled off playing Lawrence Kasdan’s Femme Fatale in Body Heat — she owned the role.

"Save your soul, whore!" "Save your money, shithead." Kathleen Turner grows bored with a John. Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Save your soul, whore!”
“Save your money, shithead.”
Kathleen Turner grows bored with a John.
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Although widely praised, Kathleen Turner never quite fit into the 1980’s Hollywood Era. Turner had the skills to be as naturalistic and real as any Actors Studio graduate, but she also conveyed the sort of charisma and on-screen presence more easily aligned with the great stars of the 1940’s cinematic era. It always seemed that when a film offered her the chance to fully utilize her considerable skills something else within the movie would let her down. It is actually rather comical to realize that Geena Davis received more praise for The Accidental Tourist. In retrospect it is Turner who steals that movie. Kathleen Turner does not perform in half-measure. This was largely lost on 1980’s filmmakers and their industry of the day.

"Sorry. I never forget a face. Especially if I've sat on it." Kathleen Turner blowing bubbles Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Sorry. I never forget a face. Especially if I’ve sat on it.”
Kathleen Turner blowing bubbles
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

It was not lost with Ken Russell and she knew that. Ms. Turner took a good deal of crap for taking on the lead role in Crimes of Passion, but she has always stood by the film. This was one of many key gifts of Ken Russell. He actually knew how to fully utilize his actors. Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave could not fail in any role, but under his direction they were both challenged and inspired. Jackson could not get by with her natural witty charm — for Russell she always had to dig just a bit deeper. As for Redgrave, her interesting reading of character mixed with often odd little mannerisms or ticks was given full flight in The Devils. As for Oliver Reed — no director ever captured his presence and talent as well as Ken Russell.

But the example that most like struck someone like Kathleen Turner was Ann-Margret got away with in Tommy. Ann-Margret is not short of talent, but what she excelled at was interplaying an undeniable erotic energy tempered by a magically conveyed sense that she was nobody’s object. This really seemed like the girl next door who would marry but still go for broke in the bedroom.

And millions of men melted while millions of women wished they could be this sexy without actually being bad... Ann-Margret Bye Bye Birdie George Sidney, 1963

And millions of men melted while millions of women wished they could be this sexy without actually being bad…
Ann-Margret
Bye Bye Birdie
George Sidney, 1963

George Sidney really didn’t do much in bringing Bye Bye Birdie to the screen, but he got one thing very right. The idea of putting Ann-Margret in front of a bright blue backdrop which she sang and moved in a hard bit of tease and bait was genius! This was the Sex Kitten personified! It would take almost a decade before Mike Nichols would give her a part suited to her talent. In 1971’s Carnal Knowledge she actually challenges Jack Nicholson as his needy girlfriend. But it was a supporting role.

When Ken Russell cast her as Nora in Tommy it caused a bit of head scratch. Here was a beautiful young woman who would be playing Roger Daltrey’s mom when they were essentially the same age. But here was a filmmaker offering Ann-Margret the opportunity to do the things she did best: Sing and emote. For Russell, Ann-Margret brought forward that idea of sexuality that fit perfectly into Tommy‘s damaged psyche.

Well, really. It was only a matter of time... Ann-Margret going the distance. TOMMY Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Well, really. It was only a matter of time…
Ann-Margret going the distance.
TOMMY
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Tell Ann-Margret to sing and dance while covered in pork-n-beans, chocolate sauce and bubble soap residue — it only takes a minute before she finds a way to hump a phallic pillow with an erotic intensity. This surreal cinematic moment among several other surprisingly potent moments and Ann-Margret became a fully respected movie star with a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Crimes of Passion and Ken Russell offered a similar opportunity for Kathleen Turner. In this 1984 role she was allowed to do what she did best: everything. As Joanna Crane she could play the realism of torment, sexual repression, loneliness and fear.

Joanna Crane: The repressed reality hiding within the surrealism... Kathleen Turner Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

Joanna Crane: The repressed reality hiding within the surrealism…
Kathleen Turner
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

As China Blue she could go full throttle movie star. The role would require her to be erotic, funny, sad, transgressive, daring, bold and most importantly it allowed her to explore the full range of human emotion. At last she would be on a screen big enough to capture her talent and beauty. Kathleen Turner delivered a masterful display of performances and Russell framed them exquisitely.

Unfortunately, the world of 1980’s new conservatism was not a welcomed place for a movie like Crimes of Passion. In the 1980’s graphic sexuality was allowed. Or, rather, it was allowed to a certain point. Crimes of Passion moved well beyond that point. It also pushed against the most stringent rule of the era — wild sexual abandon had to come at a price. The 1980’s sexually unrestricted character had to pay some moralistic price for indiscretion. Not to give too much away, the sexual pleasures in Crimes of Passion are not penalized. In fact, they are actually rewarded. That was a big “NO! NO!” in 1984. This was no longer the 1970’s.

This was a Regan and Thatcher world.

China Blue was not welcomed in it. For release in the US, Russell was required to make cuts in order to secure an R Rating. Even then, more than a few cinemas closed the film after the first day or two. This was especially true where I lived: The American Bible Belt.

These heels draw blood... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

These heels draw blood…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

Wait! My brain and fingers did it again! Damn!

Look, Crimes of Passion has been largely lost on the shelf of Cult Cinema for far too long. Sure, it is a Cult Film — but it is a great deal more as well. Just half an hour into this film and you will note its influence in modern cinema. Crimes of Passion is Neon-Noir. It is also hopelessly entertaining and very artistic. Dick Bush’s cinematography is excellent. Stephen Marsh’s production design is really quite brilliant. Rick Wakeman’s synth score is interestingly current. In fact, FOX TV’s American Horror Story owes a good deal to many aspects of this movie. It has been and continues to be influential.

"Don't fight me, child. I'm the messenger of God and I only want to heal you!" Anthony Perkins gets more than he bargained for... Crimes of Passion Ken Russell, 1984 Cinematography | Dick Bush

“Don’t fight me, child. I’m the messenger of God and I only want to heal you!”
Anthony Perkins gets more than he bargained for…
Crimes of Passion
Ken Russell, 1984
Cinematography | Dick Bush

The UK’s Arrow Video has secured all the licensing rights, has restored and will be releasing Crimes of Passion to DVD/Blu-Ray this coming July. Finally a new generation will be able to enjoy this twisted bit of cinematic magic!

Arrow Video Presents Crimes of Passion

Crimes of Passion Arrow Video Art Design by Twins of Evil

Crimes of Passion
Arrow Video
Art Design by Twins of Evil

This is a film that has never received the praise it deserves. It most likely never will, but for those of us smart enough to recognize it — Crimes of Passion is a film of complex and rude brilliance. Although it failed to please the majority of film critics and was a cinematic flop, the film did yield some return via the VHS market. I am sure Mr. Russell would have been much happier had the movie had performed better, he was not one to give up. It is key to note that Ken Russell always got the joke. He also made the film he set out to make.

Man! I did again — meandering about and ranting to the choir. If you’re reading this you are interested and I do not need to point these things out to you. Anyway, there is that second Ken Russell movie I want to discuss. Let’s see if I can restrain myself with more success.

O, Salome! Is that a banana you're eating or are you pinning for something a bit more... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988

O, Salome! Is that a banana you’re eating or are you pinning for something a bit more…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988

It would not be true to write that I needed an excuse to cut school. I hated being told I had to be “present” every school day. I skipped school often. However it was unusual for me to call in “sick” to work. But I was so excited to discover that Ken Russell’s latest movie was actually playing at a cinema in Houston that I did both. I remember worrying that my shitmoblie might fail me on the drive there. Worse yet, I wasn’t sure I had enough money to make it back home. But it was worth the risk. Salome’s Last Dance was playing at a cinema located in the heart of what was then known as the gay section of Houston.

Fran Leibowitz has noted that while AIDS stole far too many great artists — it did something actually just as if not more devastating to the arts — it stole the best persons of the audience.

It was a very hot and humid day in Southeast Texas, but it was freezing in that cinema. Wearing shorts and a torn OP shirt, I was wanting for a coat. I was alone in the theatre until three men entered. All three of them were emaciated-looking and clearly quite ill. They sat a few rows in front of me. Once the movie started it was clear that these three men were clever enough to allow their literary knowledge to serve as an instrument to fully appreciate Ken Russell’s jokes vs being offended.

Caged and about to get a rough poke... Douglas Hodge  Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Caged and about to get a rough poke…
Douglas Hodge
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

As the miserable and insufferable Bosey is being tormented by half nude Amazonian dominatrix guards, these three audience members got the giggles. I laughed as well, though I was really puzzled by the spears with which they threatened Douglas Hodge’s Bosey. What were those fist things that were covering sharp tips? I was yet “mature” enough to know about dildo fisting toys.

Several queens form The Nazareans . As well as the late Imogene Claire.  Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Several queens form The Nazareans . As well as the late Imogene Claire.
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

When the head dominatrix shoves the fisting spear up Bosey‘s ass the three men fell into hysterics. Almost immediately after Bosey‘s little surprise, Ken Russell made his cameo entrance as a brothel photographer capturing Bosey/John The Baptist‘s torment with his camera. I’ve never really seen Russell’s cameo as Hitchcockian so much as I think they served more as naughty wink. As if to indicate the silliness of the filmmaker putting himself in a movie should serve as more of a cinematic jester. I could be wrong on that, but these three gay dudes totally “got” this movie and they loved every minute. Every snarky innuendo and every time Glenda Jackson hammed a line up, they chortled in glee. I understood the literary references and caught the camp, but some of the more adult ideas most likely escaped me.

I remember making a mental note that I really had to get my ass out of Texas as soon as I graduated from university. I mean, only three people in a cinema to see a Ken Russell movie?!!?

The same had happened when I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a couple of years earlier.

"I will kiss your lips, John the Baptist!" Douglas Hodge and Imogen Millais-Scott Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

“I will kiss your lips, John the Baptist!”
Douglas Hodge and Imogen Millais-Scott
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Wait. I’ve done it again. I’ve lost myself and allowed my prose to wander off into a memory tangent. O my brain and fingers! Why do you fail me?!?

Salome’s Last Dance came into being thanks to a deal Russell had secured with Vestron after he made Gothic. He had some freedom, but his hands were tied when it came to the budget. He had to bring the movie in for under $1,000,000. About $200,000 under that million dollar mark. Ken Russell was a filmmaker who drew his own path in cinema. And he never had a problem with coloring along as he drew.  But he certainly wasn’t always going to color within the conventional lines. By 1987 his abilities to secure the kind of financing his films deserved were gone. The master filmmaker carried on and simply improvised.

Sitting just outside "the well" or, um, the dumbwaiter to listen to John The Baptist's rants... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Sitting just outside “the well” or, um, the dumbwaiter to listen to John The Baptist’s rants…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

After managing to find a way to turn Paddy Chayefsky’s overtly cerebral and ultra-thick dialogue into a watchable film, Altered States — Russell had no patience for Hollywood studios. They certainly had no patience for him. In the 1980’s he made several odd movies. Only one of these received any amount of critical praise. The Rainbow would be Mr. Russell’s final film that even slightly approached a standard or conventional narrative. It approached it very well, but at the time I remember thinking that The Rainbow lacked the sparks of innovation I had grown to love, but it appealed to a larger audience.  Looking at it now, The Rainbow is a solid and polished film. But pales in comparison to Russell’s more experimental and twisted films of this era. Over the years Crimes of Passion,  Gothic, and The Liar of the White Worm have secured  Salome’s Last Dance valued Cult Film status. There is certainly nothing wrong with being labeled a Cult Film, but some 20 to 30 years later — a couple of these movies reveal something far more than they did when first released. This is particularly true of both Crimes of Passion and Salome’s Last Dance.

Glenda Jackson takes a well-earned smoke break... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson takes a well-earned smoke break…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Salome’s Last Dance ‘s strange play-within-a-film has aged brilliantly. As Ebert noted in 1988, a low budget did not prevent Ken Russell from securing top noted artists both in front and behind the camera. The production design is both realistic and surrealistic in equal measure. It is also lush, erotic, witty, profane and “Wilde-ly” entertaining.

Russell does not change  Oscar Wilde’s play. Instead he constructed a way to offer some perspective on just how bold, daring and witty Wilde truly was. He also finds creative and clever ways to tie Oscar Wilde’s tragic personal life tied directly to the action of his Salome play. The film’s plot involves a surprise performance of Wilde’s play with the playwright as the only audience member. Russell bends history a bit to also tie this odd fictional staging to coincide with the arrest that would ruin the great writer’s life.

Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns having a lot of fun and bringing it all to life... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns having a lot of fun and bringing it all to life…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Heading up Russell’s cast is the always brilliant Glenda Jackson, Nickolas Grace and Stratford Johns. Russell cast an unknown to play the brothel maid who is plays Salome.  Imogen Millais Scott was quite an amazing discovery. She quite literally manages to steal the movie away from Jackson. This in of itself is a masterful feat! Salome’s Last Dance would be Scott’s only film. The talented actress had caught a dangerous virus and lost her eyesight just before filming was to begin. To his credit, Ken Russell refused the idea of replacing her. While this might have been an act of kindness, it was a very wise decision. Imogen Millais Scott bites into each word with a demonic bratty precision. Ms. Scott’s performance is off-kilter brilliant. It is hard to know exactly, but there is something truly disturbing about the way Salome directs her eyes. Imogen Millais Scott had an unusual look about her anyway. She looks at once like a little girl and other times like someone far older. I find it difficult to articulate why, but this actress has a rather disorienting appearance. The role itself is perverse, but there is something uncomfortably disarming regarding her individual carriage. This Salome is envisioned as a Lolita gone to seed.

Uh, oh. Herod is boring Salome... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Uh, oh. Herod is boring Salome…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

The brothel workers and customers perform the play with rabid energy. Michael Arrals’ created costumes that were both period and wonky/cheesy BDSM. The production is decidedly kinky and perverse. As the film’s concept dictates, the largely male brothel goes for broke which allows Russell to amp up the erotic subtext of the play itself. Every member of Herod’s court is sexualized beyond belief. It seems as if Ken Russell called Central Casting London and asked for 15 British Nasties wanna-be’s. These ladies are not great actors, but they are not meant to be. It works effortlessly.

The concept of metanarrative is fleshed out in more ways than one. As Oscar Wilde watches his play once intended for Sarah Bernhardt but banned by the British government is now presented by sex workers and their customers. Russell is playing off real-life tragedy. By the time this film reaches the mid-point, the reality of the film’s “audience” and those “acting” on stage have already interlaced. Wilde’s play takes on additional meanings of transgression and emotional betrayals. Bosey is playing John The Baptist which takes on the inference that it will soon be Wilde being tortured in prison while Salome’s dance should have been performed by Bosey. And here we are watching the play with Oscar Wilde himself.

Stratford Johns and Imogen Millais-Scott Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Stratford Johns and Imogen Millais-Scott
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

The result is an avant-garde and Surrealist film that never loses its energy or the viewer’s interest. Considering that none of Wilde’s original play has actually been altered, it is a bit of cinematic genius that this film is so nasty and darkly comical. Russell’s staging of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils is spectacular and more than a little surprising. Gender is up for grabs. It has to be seen to appreciate the audacity. If you are familiar with British Literature and Oscar Wilde, you already know that this dance was an essential plot point and key to the general theme of the play. So it is somehow fitting that Ken Russell has found a whole new way to bring this dance to life — and with some new meaning. These shifts in meanings and the use of perverse comedy are Russell’s own imaginings — yet they fit Wilde’s play like a lubed up latex glove. Harvey Harrison’s cinematography is exceptional and the costumes are only rivaled by Michael Buchanan’s production design and Christopher Hobbs set work. The brothel’s perverse take on Salome is intended to look cheep and crass, but Russell still finds ways to often make it all look spectacularly lush. In place of a musical score, Russell wisely choose various pieces from the realm of public domain and was lucky enough to have use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to fill the soundtrack of the movie.

But did you enjoy our little play? Nickolas Grace, Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

But did you enjoy our little play?
Nickolas Grace, Glenda Jackson and Stratford Johns
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Glenda Jackson is at her comedic best. It is clear that the great actress is having fun as both Herodias and Lady Alice. Stratford Johns is particularly invested in his performances as both Herod and Alfred Taylor. Like Jackson, he is clearly having fun, both actors are so shrewdly funny it is hard to take your eyes off them. It’s all a lot of fun, but both Jackson and Johns are able to turn it on a dime. The ultimate joke of the film is the absolute cruelty of what we have just seen. Wilde’s play ends with a thud, but Russell’s film manages to find a louder one. Innovative, hilarious, perverse, intelligent and stunning to behold — Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance could have easily been made yesterday. It feels current.

This is more than a Cult Film. Salome’s Last Dance is cinematic art. The problem is that Ken Russell was about two decades ahead his time. Certainly not a conventional film and most likely not a movie for your grandparents — This is one film that deserves a new viewing and reassessment. It is currently available via US iTunes. The quality is not quite up to par with the now out of print DVD, but it is strong enough to see the magic that Ken Russell created with almost no money but a great deal of skill, imagination and limitless artistic abilities. It is more likely that we will see Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm restored before Salome gets a proper platform on which to dance.

Ready for her kiss... Salome's Last Dance Ken Russell, 1988 Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

Ready for her kiss…
Salome’s Last Dance
Ken Russell, 1988
Cinematography | Harvey Harrison

But at least her final dance can still be seen. There is some magic there and Ken Russell’s visionary work refuses to be silenced. Thank goodness.

matty stanfield, 4.15.2016

 

 

There will ever only be one Sandy Dennis.

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.  TIME Magazine, 1967 Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

When Broadway still mattered. Sandy Dennis, the star in the $7 dress.
TIME Magazine, 1967
Illustration | Boris Chaliapin

A truly unique visionary of an actor graced with an undeniable charisma and presence that was solely her own, once you’ve seen her in action — you will not be able to forget her. At times her instinctively odd take on realism and her characters could be grating. A good example of this for me would be her odd turn in Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons or Mark Rydell’s The Fox. Other times her work was truly transformative as in Mike Nichol’s cinematic masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Robert Altman’s slow-burn human psyche horror show, That Cold Day in the Park or his off-beat film of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

"Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you." Sandy Dennis Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean  Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

“Yes, but I chose to rise above the attitudes of this small town, while you chose to lay spread over a gravestone and take them inside you.”
Sandy Dennis
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Owen Sound has a great MUBI list site regarding the late American Actress.

https://mubi.com/lists/let-me-tell-you-about-sandy-dennis-there-should-be-one-in-every-home

It is from his list I pull the following quotes:

“Sandy was a marvelous actress. She was so gifted she made every part look easy…and she didn’t choose easy parts. It was a great pleasure to work with her.” – Gena Rowlands

“Sandy Dennis is so special, so unique – an incredible woman and artist.” – Elliott Gould

“Sandy was the most amazing actress: spellbinding. The audience would hang on her every pause. And as we all acknowledge, her characterizations were miraculous; no one can say then nor now from where her profound inspirations came. But there they were, for herself and for all of the world, forever.” – Karen Black

Sandy Dennis Head Shot NYC, 1964 Photographer unknown to me.

Sandy Dennis
Head Shot
NYC, 1964
Photographer unknown to me.

While her actual first big screen role was in the iconic Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass, it would be several years later before she would be given a real role. Opposite the truly iconic Taylor & Burton as the mousy housewife for which she would win the coveted Academy Award.

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis "I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Introducing to the Big Screen: Miss Sandy Dennis
“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Film and Stage critics adored her as much as they often scorned her. Often their darling, Roger Ebert famously summed up his respect for Sandy Dennis when he reviewed her performance in  1967’s Up The Down Staircase:

“We need more films that might be concerned, even remotely, with real experiences that might once have happened to real people. And we need more actresses like Sandy Dennis.” 

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther would write:

“Sandy Dennis is engagingly natural, sensitive, literate, and thoroughly moving vivid performance…” 

It is rare to run across many negative reviews of her stage craft. Having studied under Uta Hagen and a strict Method Actor, Sandy Dennis’ stage work is a thing of legend. She received two Tony Awards. While she had many on Broadway and off-Broadway roles, the one for which she is most known is the lead in Any Wednesday. It is of note that actors still speak of this apparently amazing performance.

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.   Any Wednesday , 1964

Sandy Dennis received the second of two Tony Awards for her infamous Broadway performance.
Any Wednesday , 1964

However, in the world of film acting her often odd take on character and line readings could illicit the most cruel of critical commentary. The New York Times‘ controversial Vincent Canby was seldom kind to female actors who failed to fit into his limited idea of female beauty. He once said the following:

“Miss Dennis, mugging outrageously and badly, gives the kind of performance that, 40 years ago, would have sent her to bed without her supper. It’s rude, show-offy and, worse, it’s incompetent. Watching her do a double-take is like watching a small tug trying to work the QE2 into her Hudson River berth in a gale. It’s long and boring.”

Interestingly, this particularly nasty review was alone as other film critics rallied her performance in the film to which his acid comic critique was offered. Actually her comic delivery in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s surprisingly subversive and funny satire of the Nixon Administration within the walls of Catholicism and a convent remains second only to Glenda Jackson’s leading role.

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won't have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore! Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Sadly forgotten satire of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. They won’t have Sister Agnes to kick around anymore!
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

Perhaps the most respected American Film Critic of her day, Pauline Kael, was seldom a fan of Dennis. She famously wrote, that Dennis had “made an acting style of postnasal drip.”

This criticism was labeled as “valid” when Sandy Dennis herself stated that she agreed and that she needed to find a way to move in a different direction. As her career continued many of her biggest Film Theory supporters would complain of her consistently nervous interpretation of character.

Sandy Dennis was never able to completely abandon her ticks, mannerisms and phrasing. For her this was an element of humanity that seemed to draw her like a moth to flame. A self-admitted loner, she would say and write that she really didn’t enjoy people. She preferred her cats. However the psychology of the human condition fascinated her deeply. In most women she saw a culturally-infused sort of insecurity. The fragileness of the human condition was something key in her interpretation of character. She was often thought of as a seemingly fragile person, but this seems to be more a reaction to her work than herself.

Not too many people seemed to get into her private life. She preferred a bit of distance. Her love was found in animals. There almost seems to have been a thought forming in her head that we should be in the cages at the zoo. Humans were the ones to be studied and watched. Non-human animals were more open to love. This is just my read on what I’ve read and heard about this great artist. I also must point out that this does not hold entirely true. To those whom she did let in, she was much loved. And that love was returned.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

Those who knew and loved her, felt she was a strong and often staunchly independent person. In the very early 1980’s when Robert Altman convinced her to take to the Broadway stage for Ed Graczyk’s unusually quirky Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean she found herself working with an untrained pop superstar, Cher. Cher did not encounter a fragile person. Cher has stated that Dennis was quick to point out her “bad reading” of her role. Cher, no fragile person herself, pushed harder until she earned Dennis’ respect.

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982

Despair, rage, delusion and regret. Sandy Dennis brings it forward with Karen Black and Cher
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982

At that time a supporting player, Kathy Bates, was more than eager to work with both Altman and Dennis. After Sandy Dennis died she commented:

“Sandy was the great peacemaker of the group when we were doing Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. She was the solid one with her feet on the ground, which was interesting to me at the time, because she had such an ethereal quality as an actress. I also remember her wonderful sense of humor and her gorgeous hair. I think she was still seeing Eric Roberts at the time and we were all very jealous.”

Also at the time of Ms. Dennis’ death, Sean Penn’s full commentary offers a great deal:

“Sandy Dennis never met an unpredictable instinct she didn’t like. She was an actress and woman with beautiful idio-syncrasies and gentleness. There’s never been anyone like her. And me and movies miss her a lot. I directed the movie that turned out to be her last, The Indian Runner, which we shot in and around Omaha, Nebraska. I was honored to work with her and I’m pleased to know that she’s being honored by her own.”

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance. The Indian Runner Sean Penn, 1991

Frail, tired and dying Sandy Dennis gave her all in what would be her final performance.
The Indian Runner
Sean Penn, 1991

But looking back when Sandy Dennis fully entered the world’s pop culture chart as Edward Albee’s “Honey” in Mike Nichol’s brilliant film adaptation — Dennis’ portrayal goes far deeper than what “we” were used to seeing in 1966 cinema. This is not a surface performance. It is naturalistic and brutally real. And yet, there is something deeply odd about it. The oddness is what Dennis’ is able to sneak in with awkward pauses, drunken lapses of self-restraint and intoxicated epiphanies.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966

There is a strange new sort of presence on the screen. Both Burton and Taylor are pitch-perfect in their perverse roles. When the door is opened to reveal their after-party guests appear to be exact opposite of who they are. George Segal is also brilliant and bland as the good-looking former jock now tied in what is most likely a loveless marriage. Sandy Dennis’ “Honey” appears to be a reserved, polite and friendly middle class wife. Before long this mouse takes on a level of dark sorrow and fear that is both tragic and scary. In a strange way, thanks to Dennis’ delivery, “Honey” surprisingly game participant in her hosts’ sick game.

"I peel labels!" George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

“I peel labels!”
George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Elizabeth Taylor
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

As she confusingly takes her place in this twisted domestic game, “Honey” reveals something that only seems like a memory in the faces and actions of the other three characters: she is human and she is breaking under the weight of her life and this demented game.

There is something almost inexplicably raw and powerful in Sandy Dennis’ fragmented and almost stuttering method of speaking. Her lines come out like twitches and spastic after thoughts. While the other actors deliver with venom, gusto, pain and grief — Sandy Dennis subverts Albee’s words to the introspection of human psychology.

While the other actors seem to be absorbing the characters into their very pores, Dennis seems to be doing the opposite. She is absorbing into the pores of her fictional character. A sort of distorted version of self into fiction. Or at least this is how it feels. Dennis took a supporting role and amped it into the heretofore unbreakable personas of two of the biggest movie stars of all time. A supporting performance is seldom this transformative. 

Never mix. Never worry. Sandy Dennis Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Mike Nichols, 1966 Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

Never mix. Never worry.
Sandy Dennis
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols, 1966
Cinematography | Haskell Wexler

No one would ever dare argue that there was any other choice to receive that Oscar but Sandy Dennis. No one had ever seen a woman do this. Marlon Brando had done it, but here Sandy Dennis is free of censorship. It would be a couple of more years before Marlon Brando would turn it all upside down in Last Tango in Paris.

With an Oscar under her arm, Sandy Dennis was primed for movie stardom. Or was she?

Warner Brothers recognized the talent and everyone was aware of the acclaim she had achieved on Broadway in Any Wednesday, but they simply could not imagine “Honey” managing to play the “kept girl” of that play. I mean, aside from Streisand’s turn in Funny Girl, this was the most talked about stage performance of the day. No. Jane Fonda would be cast in the film version. At the time more than a few actors were upset.

Warner Brothers' consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of "Any Wednesday."  Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in Sweet November Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

Warner Brothers’ consolation prize to Sandy Dennis for not casting her in the film of “Any Wednesday.”
Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley in
Sweet November
Robert Ellis Miller, 1968

However Warners had a plan. They loved the play, Sweet November, but didn’t feel that Barbara Harris had “movie star potential” so the same film director, Robert Ellis Miller, who would direct Fonda in Dennis’ original role would also direct Denis in Harris’ role.

Both casting decisions were ill-advised.

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn't yet able to achieve what the part required.  Any Wednesday Robert Ellis Miller, 1966 Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda gave it her best, but she wasn’t yet able to achieve what the part required.
Any Wednesday
Robert Ellis Miller, 1966
Cinematography | Harold Lipstein

Jane Fonda had not yet fully gained access to her voice. And the director was in way over his head trying to “tame” Dennis’ style of acting to blend in with Anthony Newley’s “hammy” approach. Any Wednesday is only worth watching for the fashions. But despite all of the flaws, Sweet November, does offer a good deal of uneven entertainment. And while it all gets far too corny to believe, Sand Dennis does manage to retain some of the plays bittersweet charm. In the end the film almost works.

She would also secure the lead role in Robert Mulligan’s acclaimed 1967 film, Up The Down Staircase. Her performance is solid here as the teacher who wants to effect change for her students but doesn’t know how. This was a bit of ideal casting.

"When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke." Sandy Dennis Up The Down Staircase Robert Mulligan, 1967 Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

“When I finally get the chance, the first few precious minutes to talk to them about something I want them to understand, and I find that I am some kind of enemy. The butt of some enormous joke.”
Sandy Dennis
Up The Down Staircase
Robert Mulligan, 1967
Cinematography | Joseph F. Coffey

This success was met with controversial failure when Mark Rydell cast her opposite both Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea in a modern take on DH Lawrence’s The Fox. A soft focus haze of timid eroticism with Anne Heywood in full-on glam, Keir Dullea aiming for full-on handsome male lead — Sandy Dennis’ realistic spin as Heywood’s long time lesbian lover is far too-grounded to make sense as Heywood and Dullea seem to be dancing on air and Dennis walks about suspecting both.

"Maybe you need a man around the place." D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen... The Fox Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea Mark Rydell, 1967

“Maybe you need a man around the place.”
D.H. Lawrence comes to the screen…
The Fox
Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood and Keir Dullea
Mark Rydell, 1967

It does not work. Only Dennis is credible here, but mismatched to both of the other more Hollywood-aligned actors.

It was shortly after the mistake of Sweet November that Sandy Dennis would once again receive a great film role. This time it was an Independent Canadian film by Robert Altman. Director and actor were equally interested in each other and Altman seemed to have an interesting short-hand with Dennis. His way of communicating worked perfectly in reigning in Sandy Dennis’ often eccentric take on her characters.

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969

Neurosis morphs into sociopathic horror with Sandy Dennis as Miss. Frances Austen in
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969

In the case of Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, she didn’t need to bring any more eccentricity as the role of Miss. Frances Austen could easily be blown off the charts and into camp. This is not what Altman was after and it was certainly never be the intention of Sandy Dennis. However her’s was an often untethered sort of talent. Altman managed to assist her in containing it.

Sandy Dennis plays her character like only Sandy Dennis can, but with an elite and elegant level of restraint. She is a wealthy but lonely virgin spinster. She lives a seemingly mundane life among older people. It is never clearly articulated, but thanks to Dennis’ performance we receive several clues that something is wrong with “Miss. Frances Austen.” Actually, we are almost certain something is very much wrong.

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting "reality" That Cold Day in the Park Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Poor Miss. Frances Austen. She tries not to look, but she seems to live in a house of mirrors. And they are no longer reflecting “reality”
That Cold Day in the Park
Sandy Dennis / Michael Burns
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

When she notices an apparently homeless, mute and handsome man sitting alone on a park bench in the park, Miss. Frances Austen breaks convention and insists the “helpless” boy come to her swank home to warm up and have some food. She sends her cook and butler away. Why does she even have a cook and a butler in such a small but nice condo? It is never clear.

This film was mis-judged by film critics at the time of its release. It is an appropriate bookend to Altman’s interest in the psycho-sexual thriller. A few laters, Altman would pursue this genre again in Images — a film which received more acclaim than I think it deserved. Here, in TCDITP Altman more precisely and effortlessly slips into a woman’s damaged psyche.

Much of the credit is deserved to Sandy Dennis. The film is short and fast-paced. Yet it is filled with fairly uncomfortable and realistic scenes between Dennis and Michael Burns as the handsome young man. As Miss. Frances Austen begins to open-up to the mute mostly nude young man who is unable to speak either with/to her — things start to take an oddly warped vibe. Clearly, Miss. Frances Austen (and her name bears repeating) is a virgin and dealing with a whole lot more than sexual repression.

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.” Sandy Dennis on the verge of something… That Cold Day in the Park Robert Altman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

“I’m not going to get under the covers or anything. I’ll just lay on top. I have to tell you something. If you feel that you want to make love to me, it’s all right. I want you to make love to me. Please.”
Sandy Dennis on the verge of something…
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Altman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

The “twist” does not come as a “surprise” or even a device in a very smart move by Robert Altman. We know what is coming. This handsome mute boy is “playing” Miss. Frances Austen. He is using her for his own twisted fun and grift. The actually unexpected “twist” comes shortly after the “expected” one.

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out. Sandy Dennis That Cold Day in the Park Robert Atman, 1969 Cinematography | László Kovács

Just because it says “Exit” doesn’t mean it is a way out.
Sandy Dennis
That Cold Day in the Park
Robert Atman, 1969
Cinematography | László Kovács

After this twist is delivered, the viewer is likely to chuckle and feel reasonably entertained by this strange little movie. The thing is — Robert Altman and Sandy Dennis had just pulled-off a great cinematic trick. The final turn of the movie isn’t going to leave your mind. What seems comical gradually takes on the sinister and disturbing. There are  no jokes, camp or “bad” moments. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is near perfect and horrifying.

Sadly, this film was probably a little too “out there” at the time it was released. Appreciation for this film has really only taken hold in the last decade. Much credit should be given to Bruce LaBruce and his very Independent and very Queer-Core re-working of Altman’s film in his 1991 experimental and controversial cult film,  No Skin Off My Ass. This movie helped bring Altman’s forgotten film back into discussion. A discussion and re-evaluation which finally led to Olive Films doing a 2K restoration for blu-ray release. That Cold Day in the Park continues to claim its rightful place in cinematic history.

"Oh My Goooood!" Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon  The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

“Oh My Goooood!”
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

Oddly enough, Sandy Dennis would soon be cast in her most mainstream success opposite Jack Lemmon in Arthur Hiller’s 1970 adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Out of Towners. Filmed on location in a decaying 1969 NYC, Hiller’s film is as silly as it is insightful as a glimpse into what appears to be a truly dying city. Lemmon and Dennis play off of each other brilliantly. The film is blessed with some genuinely comic moments. Sandy Dennis’ “read” of “Oh my God” is hysterically funny. The film was a box office hit.

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you. Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon The Out of Towners Arthur Hiller, 1970

When they take you for an out-of-towner, they really take you.
Sandy Dennis & Jack Lemmon
The Out of Towners
Arthur Hiller, 1970

While the money made was probably a great thing, Sandy Dennis never seemed to be particularly comfortable with success. She quickly retreated to the theatre and teaching at The Actor’s Studio. She would continue to take roles in movies but these were more often more “off the grid” type of films. An exception was 1977’s smart satire from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Nasty Habits. 

This clever film featured an incredible cast with Glenda Jackson (think Richard Nixon as a Mother Superior) in the lead. The supporting players as corrupt nuns (all the equal to someone involved in the Watergate Scandal) included Sandy Dennis (in a truly goofy turn as the nun equal to Nixon’s John Dean), Melina Mercouri, Geraldine Page, Anne Jackson, the great Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Eli Wallach and Rip Torn. Sadly the film failed to find an audience. There is hope that someone will resurrect this film soon. It is almost impossible to even find stills from this film.

A seemingly lost classic... The Watergate Scandal for Nuns. Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and   Melina Mercouri Nasty Habits Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

A seemingly lost classic…
The Watergate Scandal for Nuns.
Geraldine Page, Sandy Dennis, Glenda Jackson and Melina Mercouri
Nasty Habits
Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977

When Robert Altman called again, Sandy Dennis agreed to come aboard for his return to the Broadway Stage. This would eventually be filmed into a strange but potent film, 1982’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The film failed to register at the time of it’s release, but it appreciation for this film has grown into a solid following.

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis' "Mona"  Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman, 1982 Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

Karen Black and Cher look through the mirror of time at Sandy Dennis’ “Mona”
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Robert Altman, 1982
Cinematography | Pierre Mignot

After this it seems the roles she chose were largely based on requests from fellow-artists she respected (Alan Alda, Woody Allen, Larry Cohen, Bob Balaban and Sean Penn) or ones that provided a quick and easy paycheck (976-EVIL, the 80’s reboot of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents and an odd appearance on The Love Boat)

Her supporting role as Millie Dew in Bob Balaban’s odd and very demented 1989 satire, Parents, is a stand-out. Sicker than sick, often disturbing but always darkly comic — Sandy Dennis is clearly having some fun and adds a great deal to an already impressive cast. Miss. Dew stands out. For more than a few reasons. If you’ve seen it, you will know to what I refer. This is a brilliant little movie that deserves to be revisited. 

"This will be delicious!" Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son's guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis. Parents Bob Balaban, 1989 Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

“This will be delicious!”
Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt have very different plans for their son’s guidance counselor, Miss Millie Dew played to the hilt by Sandy Dennis.
Parents
Bob Balaban, 1989
Cinematography | Ernest Day / Robin Vidgeon

Her final performance was for Sean Penn and his directorial debut, The Indian Runner. Even though she was unable to complete the film, she made a memorable impression. It is a sigh of relief to know that she exited the stage with such a great role in a great film.

Sandy Dennis was a fairly private person. Perhaps more so, she simply did not enjoy the company of people. She had been in a decade long term relationship with Gerry Mulligan, an essential American Jazz artist. And she had a four year relationship with actor, Eric Roberts. While this was clearly far more than just a romance, Dennis opted to end it. There was no scandal, they remained friends. She was never bothered with rumors of her bi-sexuality. Eric Roberts had publicly discussed that she had shared her sexual experiences with other women to him and close friends. Even though she wrote her memoirs, there is much about her that is largely unknowable.

Aside from her work and esteemed professional reputation, the strongest testament of who Sandy Dennis was remains in the clearly beloved memories of her close friends, students and colleagues. Perhaps her two closest friends were Brenda Vaccaro and Jessica Walter. Equally respected and well-liked, it speaks volumes that these two women were her dearest friends.

She had been battling cancer for sometime. She passed away in her home surrounded by her life’s true joy: her cats. She was only 54 years old.

I really like something that fellow actor and a friend, Ian McKellen, wrote in 2004:

“Had she lived, by now she would have been a veteran actor of formidable powers or perhaps, eschewing work, she would simply be an animal-lover at home, smiling indulgently at the craziness of the world around her.”

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats. Sandy Dennis 1937 - 1992 RIP Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

Sandy Dennis with one of her beloved cats.
Sandy Dennis
1937 – 1992
RIP
Photograph | © Michael Tighe, 1991

A foundation was started in 2012 in her hometown of Hastings, Nebraska. There is a great deal of information to be found here about the legendary actress. The goal of the foundation has never been clear to me, but contact information can be found there should you want to pursue.

The Sandy Dennis Foundation

Matty Stanfield, 9.18.2015

In the final act of William Friedkin’s 1973 iconic film, The Exorcist, the film’s struggling priest and his wiser elder discuss the nature of evil, how to address it and how to understand it’s logic:

Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.”

Why her? Why this little girl?  Max von Sydow The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this little girl?
Max von Sydow
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this girl?”
“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”

The Exorcist first arrived to cinemas in December of 1973. This film’s reception and the reactions it caused are of historical note. Financed and distributed by Warner Brothers the movie caused fear, panic attacks, a couple of heart attacks, repulsion, anger and accusations of “blasphemy.”  While The Exorcist is essentially a Supernatural Horror Film, William Friedkin’s epic film was approached with a level of realism and artistry that could not be refuted. It was a highly artistically-valid film. As for being an exploitive use of a child actor and blasphemy, well The Vatican gave this film the seal of approval. It was even blessed for “realistically depicting demonic evil.” Cue priests, nuns, ministers and most God-fearing people line up and see it.

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

If one is able to take pause and look at Friedkin’s film independent of it’s source novel and The Vatican, this movie also offers an interesting spin on the state of American Culture at the beginning of the 1970’s.

Another "mock-up" idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Another “mock-up” idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

It can easily be summed up as metaphor for the feeling that parents had lost control of their children amid the emergence of “Anti-Establishment Movement” to “Sexual Revolution” to “Drug Culture” to the ever-increasing power of Rock rebellion.

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an "altered" shot from the movie itself.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an “altered” shot from the movie itself.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Both the novel and film also indirectly address the tragic side of becoming a priest. The film conveys that Jason Miller’s Priest is something more to his best priest buddy. While his friend seems to be able to repress his sexual desires, it appears to be bit more of a strain for Miller’s “Father Karras” a repressed and guilt-ridden former boxer who has escaped into the Priesthood as much to do good as to escape his all-too moral desires. Interestingly, the self-proclaimed Atheist mother find it easier to accept that her daughter might be possessed by The Devil than this conflicted priest. This film is also examining the impact of repression and the reasons men decide to become priests. Granted, it is in a somewhat passive way, but it is there.

"Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker." Whether it by taunting into Father Karras' most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have -- this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.  Subliminal Experimental Editing - so fast you can almost mess it.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker.” Whether it by taunting into Father Karras’ most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have — this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.
Subliminal Experimental Editing – so fast you can almost mess it.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

No matter how you want to interpret or view The Exorcist – the power of this infamous film is beyond denial. I remember sitting in sold-out huge Boston cineplex auditorium in 2000 to see the “Restored” and the “Version I Had Never Seen.”  I was actually curious to see how a modern day audience would react to this early 1970’s film. I think I was expecting that we would all find the movie darkly comic. I was wrong. This was the normal “cineplex” audience. You know, the one that freely converses, talks back to the screen and generally rude masses. True to form, as the commercials and previews screened children were screaming, teenagers were tossing candy at each other and all sorts of mayhem that will ruin a movie viewing experience for me. But as soon as The Exorcist started, the entire tone of the packed auditorium changed.

The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

By the film’s midpoint you could have heard a pin drop. Almost 30 years later, this movie was freaking us out. And it still shocks.

Which brings us to one of those long pondered questions which forever escaped logic. How did WB’s The Exorcist secure an
“R-Rating” by the MPPA in 1973? How did it reclaim that same rating 30 years later? Other far less sadistic or graphic films had been slapped with an “X-rating” and by 2000 we had seen the arrival of the dreaded “NC-17” label. Why would the MPAA give an art film like “Henry & June” an “NC-17” and “The Exorcist” an “R-Rating?”

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1971 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1971
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Granted, neither or films for children, but if I were a parent and asked to pick which of these two films were “less appropriate” for a child under 17 years of age — I would select The Exorcist. I think most would.

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.  Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn't get his soul.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.
Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn’t get his soul.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Or maybe not? I’m not a parent. Maybe I have it wrong.

To put The Exorcist‘s “R-Rating” in perspective, in the same year the MPAA rated The Exorcist as “R” it slapped the dreaded “X-Rating” to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In comparison this rating makes no sense. Luckily, Nicolas Roeg’s film had Paramount behind it’s distribution. Somehow the MPAA rethought it and relented an “R-Rating” for Roeg’s experimental film. But only two years earlier the MPAA assigned Ken Russell’s The Devils with an “X-Rating.” And, this was after WB required Ken Russell to cut out a significant amount of footage. Warner Brothers held on to two copies of Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut. While Russell’s The Devils is a provocation, it never goes anywhere near the level of having a 14 year-old girl defile herself with a crucifix.

"Hell will hold no surprises for them!" Warner Bros marketing campaign for  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971

“Hell will hold no surprises for them!”
Warner Bros marketing campaign for
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971

Interestingly much has been made about William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist novel having been based on an actual and true incident involving a teenage boy in the 1950’s. However, when one actually looks into the “true story” much more of what actually happened is unclear. In most ways, this “true incident” appears to be largely lost within the shadows of marketing and urban legend. As grim and horrifying as The Exorcist is, both the 1973 and the 2000 versions offer the audience “hope.” This is a hope grounded in faith and the power of good over evil. There is nothing at all wrong with that. But it does seem a flimsy excuse to let it pass with an “R-Rating” when Friedkin’s more recent independent movie, Killer Joe, was given an “NC-17.”

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the "NC-17-Rating" -- The official "X-Rating" was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the “NC-17-Rating” — The official “X-Rating” was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

In Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Rated, hidden cameras and a number of covert activities were utilized to break in to the odd world of Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. The documentary revealed several things, but only one was surprising: Every screening held by the individuals who are “chosen” to serve as raters is blessed by both a Christian Minister and a Catholic Priest. While neither is supposed to lecture or push any decision of the raters, they are free to include whatever they wish in their blessings.

And here is the answer to the mysterious reasoning behind The Exorcist rating. It is Vatican approved.

Father Granier's use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.  Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.
Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

It may contain graphic and obscene scenes of blasphemy, but it has a Catholic Intent. The priests fix it all! Or at least it seems to be thought.

The intent of Killer Joe is to satire the impact of greed on marginalized lower-class family dysfunction.

As for Ken Russell’s The Devils? The intent is aimed as satirizing both politics and religion. It depicts both fundamental aspects of most human life as opportunities for corruption, greed, ambition and power.

Graham Armitage as France's King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court's most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn't mind The King's sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Graham Armitage as France’s King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court’s most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn’t mind The King’s sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Oh, and unlike The ExorcistThe Devils is actually based on “historic fact.” I only put that in quotation marks because I am referring to 17th Century French history. However, the sources and descriptions of the events that Russell fictionalizes in The Devils tie much closer to what he shows us than anything of truth connected to The Exorcist. This means The Devils depicts a very scary moment in both French and Catholic history in which greed and power not only “suggested” nuns to blaspheme,

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society's rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society’s rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

a primary Cardinal and his priests most likely “required” their nuns to comply or face torture — nothing is too much to  a rebellious priest and assist the Catholic Church forge closer to a demented French King. Ken Russell didn’t even feel it necessary to change any of the actual names of the individuals who have already been forged into history.

This might explain Warner Brothers refusal to relinquish Ken Russell’s infamous and acclaimed 1971 art film, The Devils. Restoration of this film is of growing concern to Film Historians and Film Art Preservationists. Film only lasts so long and only WB knows where and how their 2 copies of The Devils are being stored. WB is not known to always apply a great deal of logic to their catalog. And they have an essential collection of cinematic work.

In many ways,  Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only "innocent" character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.  Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

In many ways, Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only “innocent” character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Going into it’s 45th year, this film may soon be lost forever unless WB takes care of it or releases it to a company who will. As you read this you might feel the need to roll your eyes or dismiss it, but this is worse than censorship: it comes at the risk of losing a valuable piece of cinematic history.

While I’m not sure one could state that Ken Russell’s The Devils is a better film than Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  William Friedkin made the better film. The Exorcist is a cinematic masterpiece. No questions asked.

Ken Russell’s cinematic work is challenging. An eccentric British filmmaker, he shares more in common with the films of Michael Powell or even more like those of Andrzej Zulawski. Russell’s films tend to have a manic pace and no restraint. They are often bombastic, loud, crass and dangerous to know. “Women in Love” and “Tommy” are probably his two most accessible films. But his work is often magical and intellectual. In the case of The Devils, it is angry. No question that Russell was a cinematic genius. But as is the case with many genius artists, he often had a hard time restraining himself from excess and obsession.

That being stated and noting that The Exorcist is the better film. I do think a case could be argued that The Devils is an equally important film. It is also worth noting that The Exorcist has been such an influential and cultural juggernaut of world-wide scope, multiple copies in all formats exist in a number of places. The future preservation of The Exorcist is secured.

However, as time and investigations move further along — it is becoming clear that there might only be two remaining prints of The Devils as it was originally to be released in 1971. For quite a while there was thought to be a secured copy held by Ken Russell’s daughter. It would appear that this is not the case. One other possibility for a print of the full film turned up as invalid. It would appear that Warner Brothers is the only one who has a pristine print of the original film.

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Despite pleas from The British Film Institute, The Great Britain Historical Society, The Ken Russell’s Estate, The BBC, The Criterion Collection and a power-laden Official Petition — Warner Brothers simply refuses to relinquish the film to anyone for any reason. It was viewed as a major victory for BFI when WB finally agreed to supply them with with limited licensing rights and a copy to “restore” and transfer limited to British Region Code DVD/Blu-Ray (no cinema screenings allowed) It didn’t matter. At last an organization would be able to properly restore and save the film. It was a bit of shock for the distinguished BFI to discover that Warner would not “loan” or “share” an actual print of the film. Instead BFI received a Digi-Beta tape of the American X Certificate version. The American “X-Rated” version was even more cut up than the UK version. This Digi-Beta tape greatly limited the ability to “restore” quality and it was not the original theatrical release of the movie.

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this "progressive" priest.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this “progressive” priest.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

BFI did their best. The quality is better than the briefly and highly censored VHS tape WB released in the mid 1980’s. Some scenes are fuzzy, some aren’t, some have audio issues that could only be minimally-addressed. Worst of all, the most crucial scenes of Russell’s work are still missing.

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

South Korea also secured a limited licensing from WB, but this was also made from a similar Digi-Beta tape that was an “R-rated” cut of the film that had never been seen. This version actually doesn’t completely make sense so much has been cut. There is one bootleg copy floating around, but the quality is so bad it is almost impossible to watch — and very often is impossible to hear.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches: "Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that's your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!" The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches:
“Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that’s your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!”
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Warner Brothers has never actually officially addressed the reasoning behind their refusal to allow access to The Devils. Because they have stated that Ken Russell’s original cut of the film is within their possession and protection, many thought that the executives were holding off to “cash in” once the film’s notorious and infamous director had died. However, we lost Mr. Russell in late 2011 at the age of 84. Warner Brothers continues to refuse requests, petitions and any individual writer seeking information. The reasons for not letting the film out run deeper than any possible profit or historical cinema preservation merits.

It is particularly interesting in an age where any controversy is viewed “a selling factor” if it can make a buck. WB is a huge corporation. The bottomline and increasing profit is a main concern. So why keep The Devils hidden away? No one connected to the film’s controversy is left who would care.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The only living artist who could object would be Vanessa Redgrave. She, like many who worked for Ken Russell, remained a close friend until the end of his life. She has also expressed pride in having been a part of the film and considers it one of her best bits of work. Her role was originally intended for the equally esteemed Glenda Jackson. Jackson, also a life-long friend of Ken Russell and family, had discussed the fact that she turned down Redgrave’s infamous role because, at that time, she was tired of playing Russell’s sexually neurotic and hysterical muse. She made that statement both in truth and jest. Years later she would film her final role in Russell’s experimental and demented film Salome’s Last Dance. At the time Jackson noted that she had some regrets at having not played Sister Jeanne.

Acclaimed cinematographer, David Watkin, served as Cinematographer. He remained proud of this early film for offering him some freedom in establishing his own style while adhering to Russell’s vision. Prior to The Devils, Watkin was best known for having filmed 2 iconic movies:  The Knack… and How to Get It and The Beatles’ Help.

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.  Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.
Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

His style was really already formed, but he felt the freedom Russell allowed offered him great benefit. He died in 2008.

Another interesting aspect of The Devils is that it features the early work of the iconic Derek Jarman. Jarman’s imprint on The Devils is unforgettable. Serving as the film’s production designer, The Devils features some truly amazing sets. Jarman would go on to be an important and experimental voice in Film and the art of Queer Film.

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Jarman’s style was always unique, but it is clear that Russell’s aesthetic impacted his own vision.

Aside from the Film Theory aspect, The Devils is of note because it is a fictional account of something that is of historical note for both France and The Catholic Church. This is probably a page of history that both the country and The Vatican would rather forget. Interestingly, this might be the main reason WB is not letting the film go.

Aldous Huxley plunged deep within the history of what happened in 17th Century Loudun with the publication of his historical novel, Devils of Loudun. It was a controversial read then and it still is, but there is nothing in it than can be refuted. The few times Huxley actually is forced to put forward an explanation for things unexplained he offers several ideas to explain. And all are sound.

Let the "exorcisms" begin... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Let the “exorcisms” begin…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley crafted a historical narrative to address the controversial, mysterious and sordid historical fact that involved Cardinal Richelieu, a rebellious priest by the name of Father Urban Grandier, An Ursuline Convent of nuns and their Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels. It is know that Father Grandier disagreed with both the King and The Catholic Church at the time. It seems fairly obvious that he seemed to disagree with idea of celibacy and was corrupt in that he engaged in sexual trysts with women of his flock. It is also of note that Father Grandier was reported to be handsome, charismatic and flirtatious. For unknown reasons, he declined Sister Jeanne’s request to act as “Spiritual Advisor” for for both she and her nuns. Cardinal Richelieu already viewed Father Grandier as a threat to the church and The Church’s desire to become closely aligned with The King. King Louis XIII, the infamous monarch of the House of Bourbon is a figure of legendary in and of himself. And both of these powerful men needed the other for a while due to political and power circumstances.

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and "suggested" to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the "good" of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their  Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists' guidance for transgressive behavior.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and “suggested” to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the “good” of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists’ guidance for transgressive behavior.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

In what could be compared to the Salem Witch Trails only far more perverse and blasphemous in nature, Huxley put forward a number of reasons that France, The Catholic Church and the People of Loudun thought Father Grandier had made a pact with Satan that allowed the pristine Ursuline nuns to be fully possessed by demonic forces. It is of historical record to the level of debauchery that these “possessions” led the “blessed” nuns and their “heavenly” Mother Superior to act out public acts of sexually perverse behaviors including orgies and evil sexual blasphemy with religious symbols and Christ Icons.

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Under both the blessing of the Cardinal and the approval of King Louis XIII, a series of public exorcisms were performed that involved more than just sprinkling of Holy Water. The nuns went further into “fits of hysteria” and their Mother Superior named Father Grandier as the evil responsible for their demonic actions. The public watched the acts of debauchery and exorcisms in what reads like some sick and twisted form of entertainment. The exorcisms went further into public acts of sexual torture. And then, it all stopped. The nuns and their Superior were free of their demons and redeemed  in the “Eyes of God.” 

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.  Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.
Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Grandier was questioned and tortured by the exorcist, the priests and their followers to extract a confession of having formed a pact with The Devil and conspiring to corrupt all of France and the Catholic Church. He never confessed or gave in to the torture. Ultimately, he was burned at the stake.

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal's Exorcist.  Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkins

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal’s Exorcist.
Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkins

This, according to history, was the only way both The King and The Cardinal could be sure that Loudun were rid of the Satanic Grip. The public execution was treated as entertainment. Everyone in the town celebrated and the nuns were also granted approval to witness the horrid death.

Father Granier's abandoned son is brought to watch his father's execution.  Georgina Hale  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s abandoned son is brought to watch his father’s execution.
Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley theorized a number of ideas. One of the most controversial being that most women who became nuns at this time had been deemed “unmanageable” and desperate for shelter. Though not completely clear, it would appear that The Mother Superior suffered some major physical birth defect. Her holiness was viewed to be a result of her plight. It is historically stated that Father Grandier enjoyed antagonizing Sister Jeanne of the Angels.

Huxley writes that the levels of sexual repressions, lack of serious faith, The Mother Superior’s disdain for the priest, the fact that many of the men in Loudun viewed Grandier as a trouble-maker with both The King and The Cardinal — and ultimately the political possibilities between a power-hungry Cardinal and a possible insane and perverse King led to one of the ugliest moments in French and Catholic history.

Huxley goes into great detail about the many realistic and human possibilities that factored into this incident. He leans toward the political, hypocracy and a shared temporary delirium or hysteria for the nuns. He also suggests that it many not have been so psychological. It might have boiled down to the nuns having to do as instructed by their Cardinal. Anyway one looks at it, it is not a pretty picture of religion or politics.

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Filmed at the very end of the 1960’s, the political and liberal Ken Russell saw this story and the play it had inspired to be an ideal topic to explore as metaphor. Russell’s The Devils is excessive in every way possible. While often beautifully staged and crafted — the film pulses with a hysterical pace. The acting is intentionally “theatrical” and most certainly presented to shock. The political ideologies spell forth throughout. Russell does not spare Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier as solidly ethical character. He is impossible to like, but it is equally impossible that this character deserves what he is given. Especially since he is given it for entirely the wrong reasons.

Vanessa Redgrave fares best in the film. In fact she is fantastic in the role. She is able to match the operatic pacing of the film with a carefully eccentric and darkly comical read on her character. It is an impossibly brilliant performance. Russell presents both she and her nuns as women who have “devoted” their lives to God because society has no other use for them. The only character who appears to actually feel a true calling to the devoted life of a nun is quickly dismissed by Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne of the Angels. She is too pretty to waster her time locked up in the convent. And what a convent it is. While Redgrave’s character runs a strict order, she simply turns the other way as her nuns grab at vague attempts as sexual gratification.

Sympathy for the Devil? Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Sympathy for the Devil?
Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

When the nuns become a pawn of The Church and The State, it is as if they’ve been not only granted “permission” to explore their repressed desires, the threat of torture looms if they don’t take those “desires” to blasphemous limits. This is the portion of the film that remains controversial almost 45 years later. The scenes are disgusting. They are not erotic. They are upsetting. What’s more — these scenes which have been labeled The Rape of Christ — can be found from time to time on YouTube. BFI has access to an inferior copy from whereabouts unknown. They were shown on British television documentary about the film in the late 80’s. Compared to much of what we see now on cable, they are really barely eligible for an R rating much less an X or NC-17.

Faith and Religion Distorted For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Faith and Religion Distorted
For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The scenes that are the most disturbing are in the R-rated cut. Sister Jeannes’ “exorcism” is actually rape and sexual torture. 40 some odd years later, these scenes are still hard to watch. Yet these scenes get an “R-Rating” when an “NC-17” would be more appropriate. Another controversial segment which would probably secure a “PG-13” rating today is actually one of the more blasphemous scenes in the movie. Sister Jeannes convulsive sexual fantasies of Father Granier as Christ are not graphic, but oddly disturbing. Filmed beautifully and erotically, Oliver Reed emerges as Christ descended from the Cruxifiction walking upon water to Sister Jeanne. As she kisses his bloodied feet and sweeps her hair over them. She begins to move up his body as if about to engage in felatio when the wind blows her vaguely nun-like wrapping off — her hump back is revealed and she screams in horror as everyone begins to mock and degrade her.

Georgina Hale The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils may not have been crafted with the precise and deftly serious style as The Exorcist, but Ken Russell’s film is concerned with far more serious cultural issues than Evil vs. Good. In The Devils, Ken Russell is presenting ideas that still seem to shake people to their core. It is a satirical political commentary that works incredibly well. Fever-pitched and unapologetic it is an essential film.

And when one stands back from both of these films, The Exorcist is actually the more perverse and controversial film. Welcome to the schisms of Film Theory, History, Politics and Religion.

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism... Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism…
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

I have written about both Ken Russell, his work and this film in particular a number of times. I’ve also done some “covert investigation” in separating fact from fiction regarding Warner Brothers and possible prints of the original cut. If anyone is persistent, it a fan of film. There are a great number of Film Preservationists, Film Historians, devoted Ken Russell fans and Cinematic Curiosity Seekers who are still pushing to gain access to this film. Unless Warner Brothers is lying to us and they lost both of those prints, there is always a chance that Ken Russell’s The Devils might one day gets its moment in on the screen.

Matty Stanfield, 8.10.2015

Ken Russell  1927 - 2011 Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

Ken Russell
1927 – 2011
Photograph | 1988 ©Vestron Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

When I think of British film director, Ken Russell, a number of words immediately come into my mind. The words or phrases I associate with Ken Russell are as follows:

Brilliant, British, Pushing The Envelope, Anti-Repression, Classical Music, Eccentric Artists, Obsessive, Auteur, Bombastic, Surreal, Genius, Avant Garde, Anger, Anti-Religion, Dark Eroticism, Carnal , Crass, Experimental Artist, Cultural Critic, Sardonic, Brutal, Human Lust, Lavish, Cinematography, Creative, Imaginative, Drug Culture, Transgressive Artist, Controversial, Intellectual, Form, Style, Orchestrated Chaos, Excessive, Angry, Provocative, Shock-Master, Sexually-charged, Kicking Against The Pricks, Unhinged Cinematic Master and An Original – in every sense of the word.

Ken Russell's GOTHIC, 1986

Ken Russell’s GOTHIC, 1986

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Ken Russell’s artistic career is the fact that all of these aspects of the artist seldom blended to create that special alchemy that can form a masterful film. It seems as if these aspects that formed The Great Ken Russell also hindered him from being remembered as the Cinematic Genius he was. With the possible exception of only a few films, one has only to watch one of his films to see his genius at work. And with the exception of only a few, one only has to view one of his films to see how he most often undermined his own work.

There can be no question of the magic and inspired work found in such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE DEVILS and TOMMY. All three of these films capture almost every word or phrase that came to my mind, but all three of these film work beautifully on almost all levels.

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Women In Love will always remain Ken Russell’s most accessible and commercial film.

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The cast of WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

A brilliant adaptation of the infamous novel by Larry Kramer, Ken Russell conjured a stunning cinematic experience.

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

The erotic eating of a fig. Alan Bates as Rupert in WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates were never better or more sensually attractive as they are in this movie. And the mix of Billy Williams’ cinematography, the music of Georges Delerue, the fine performances, sensual eroticism and Ken Russell’s obsessive care form a brilliant cinematic experience which fully captures D.H. Lawrence.

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, WOMEN IN LOVE

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Eleanor Bron, WOMEN IN LOVE, 1969

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates' infamous nude wrestle.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates’ infamous nude wrestle.

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However, THE DEVILS may be a bit too brutal, angry, avant-garde and shocking to suit the tastes of many.

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave, THE DEVILS, 1971

THE DEVILS retains a major place in Film History and Film Theory. It also features the very early genius of Derek Jarman who served as Set Designer and contains one of Vanessa Redgrave’s finest performances. It is also impossible to see this film as Ken Russell intended. Though, there is a bootleg DVD out there that comes close. This film caused such controversy in it’s depiction of an actual historic event that it remains condemned by The Vatican. The infamous Rape of Christ sequence earned the film an X rating and outraged many. However, this motion picture remains a powerful – albeit convulsive, view of Vatican hypocrisy and the culture dangers of State and Church merging. THE DEVILS is a raging, bold, theatrical, surreal, repulsive, operatic and intentionally blasphemous indictment against not only The Catholic Church but organized religion.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne love for Christ goes far beyond the appropriate scope. THE DEVILS, 1971

And, then Russell’s most commercially successful motion picture, TOMMY.

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell's TOMMY, 1975

Your senses will never be the same. Ken Russell’s TOMMY, 1975

Though this film is very much a sort of 1970’s Glam Rock Time Capsule moment — it is a brilliant cinematic rock opera. Far ahead of the cinematic curve, it is hard to imagine the concept of the pop music video or the existence of MTV without Ken Russell’s TOMMY. The film was the perfect storm for a mid-1970’s hit.

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner as The Acid Queen about to rip his soul apart. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Tina Turner is The Acid Queen about to apply the first of many injections. TOMMY, 1975

Acast filled with the coolest and most talented pool of rock musicians along with the Sex Kitten purr/roar of Ann-Margret.

Ann-Margret is The Mother. TOMMY, 1975

Ann-Margret is The Mother.
TOMMY, 1975

In addition, TOMMY captures a great deal of the time in which it was filmed: cult religion, rebellion, sexual freedom, a growing understanding of the impact of trauma on children, the power of drugs for insight, the sexual revolution and the general unrest and anger seething in Wester Culture as the 1970’s moved to the mid-point.

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard. TOMMY, 1975

Elton John is The Pinball Wizard.
TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

That blind, deaf, dumb boy sure plays a mean pinball. Elton John, TOMMY, 1975

The story of The Who’s Tommy is given a whole new perspective from the 1960’s concept album. Ken Russell’s love of opera and all of eccentricities of his imagination were the perfect match for a rock opera. And, Ann-Margret was the perfect leading lady for him. Ann-Margret has always been a talented beauty, tommy6

but has also also always come on a little oddly strong and theatrical. Her tempo and seething eroticism matched every turn of Russell’s camera. Her delivery resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a leading role. A nomination that shocked as many as it pleased. In my opinion, TOMMY was Ken Russell’s finest hour as a filmmaker. It adheres to his aesthetic / style and offers him a chance to be commercial to the mass public. TOMMY was the perfect “trip” for the mid-1970’s.

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And, while it is now a bit dated, there is no way one can watch it without feeling the power of the film itself and note the ways in which it has been copied over the years.  And, it is also impossible not to note that Ken Russell was inspired and enchanted by the physical / erotic presence and glam rock star look of Roger Daltrey.

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Tommy and a new muse for Ken Russell. Iconic and Erotic. TOMMY, 1975

One can’t help but suspect that it was his interest in Daltrey’s charisma and pop star status that moved him to make one of the most curious, strange and truly bizarre major Hollywood productions to ever find itself not only “green-lighted” but released to a world of mainstream movie screens…

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell's LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA, 1975

There was already a very positive buzz surrounding Russell’s production of TOMMY.  In the US, Columbia Pictures was already certain it had a massive hit coming their way. For the first time in his career, Ken Russell was truly being evaluated as a major player in the film business. Before he even finished filming TOMMY he knew he wanted to return to one of his favorite subject matters – the challenges and obsessions of the great classical composers. It has also been rumored that his perception of creating film had greatly been altered by his experience of working with The Who and interacting with the superstardom surrounding the band and the other rock musicians he had been able to cast in the movie. It is not surprising that he came up with the idea of what would become LISZTOMANIA. However, what is surprising is that Warner Bros. was so eager to get the movie made. What would have made the Big Warner Bros. “Suits” think that Russell’s script could ever be anything but a confusing mess is a cultural-head-scratcher. This is especially true when one thinks about the woes that their previous funding of Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS had caused them. True, that film was highly praised by some — but it is also true that it spurred equal amounts of anger. Audiences either loved THE DEVILS or hated it. One can argue that a work that can cause such extreme reactions is most likely a very valid work of art. But, this does not usually spell “blockbuster” — and, as with THE DEVILS, it resulted in being banned all over the world. But whether it was some sort of frenzy over the fact that TOMMY was destined to be a huge hit, or the drug-out culture pervading Hollywood at the time or just the simple idea that “the kids” will pay good money to see anything with the lead singer of The Who, rock music and the “weirdness” of TOMMY — Ken Russell’s next infamous feature was approved and set quickly into production. It is perhaps the biggest budgeted example of Experimental or Surrealism ever made by a major Hollywood studio.

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt and he is enjoying one of his groupies.
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ken Russell’s concept for the movie is not a bad one. Combined with his love of classical musical history, the creation of art, the cultural rebel and his new found interest in 1970’s Glam Rock Pop Culture — the basic idea of LISZTOMANIA is a seemingly valid and interesting cinematic idea. Anyone familiar with classical music history knows that Franz Liszt enjoyed a whole new sort of popularity during his lifetime. In the classical music “scene” of last quarter of  18th Century Europe, classical composers / musicians normally performed before a hushed audience who were there to take in the pleasure, power and essence of the music and “to be seen” — but Franz Liszt was inspiring something totally new in the world of performing arts. He didn’t just appeal to the wealthy. He appealed to almost everyone — particularly women. Reports of young women following him just to steal a tossed cigar or to catch a glimpse of their favorite composer.

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Roger Daltrey in the prime of his Erotic Superstardom as Franz Liszt. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, many reports on record state that patrons often had a hard time concentrating on Liszt’s music due to the noise of the young women who would scream and push forward to the stage. Though, the word did not yet exist — Franz Liszt had a loyal fan following. And these fanatic “fans” would swoon and be totally swept away by his playing as much as his mere presence.

Heinrich Heine first coined the term, “Lisztomania” in 1844. Heine saw the reaction of Liszt’s following as becoming hysterical and falling into a “Liszt Fever” — audiences literally going crazy as he took to the stage. Swooning, dazed and applauding throughout his performances. Franz Liszt had “groupies” and apparently enjoyed the pleasure of their company.

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Though, modern scholars would most likely warn that this was nothing like Western culture experienced in the early 1960’s with The Beatles. But, a valid argument can still be made that Franz Liszt may have been the first “Pop Star” — with one of compositions we now refer to as “Chop Sticks” being a signature piece he would perform to the delight of the young women.

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…  LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Princess Carolyn rests on a somewhat oddly yonic bed while enjoying a joint as Franz serenades her with his magical music…
LISZTOMANIA, 1975

No doubt, Ken Russell saw the correlation between what is known about Franz Liszt and the 1970’s rock star. A rock star like Roger Daltrey. And, Ken Russell appears to take great joy in the meshing of costume with 1970’s Glam Rock fashion.

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz Liszt about to leave the wife behind as he heads on to another lengthy tour. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

LISZTOMANIA movie promotion, UK. 1975

Unfortunately, Ken Russell didn’t stop with the Rock Superstar metaphor / allegory. After the creative energy and sheer delight of creating outrageous set pieces for TOMMY, he wanted to push his idea even further. Suddenly, the story of Franz Liszt was an opportunity to illustrate the hipocracy of The Vatican and the vile politics of The Pope.  Here, Ken Russell had the “inspired” idea to cast Ringo Starr as The Pope. Religious icons were replaced with Pop Culture Icons such as modern rock and movie stars.

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Ringo Starr is The Pope. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And to examine the evil of humanity that would spawn Fascism and The Third Reich.  Oddly, there is a valid connection here to the story of Franz Liszt. His daughter, Cosima, would go on to marry Richard Wagner – both were vehement anti-Semites and were part of an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of The Third Reich. An idea that would corrupt German culture and plant a seed that would grow into The Nazi. All of this historical information fueled Russell’s imagination and pulsated into a comic book re-telling of the horror of The Holocaust — featuring Richard Wagner as the Ultimate Evil Villain vs. Franz Liszt as The Ultimate Super Hero to fight and beat down the Oppressive Nazi “Superman”.

The Creation of Wagner's Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The Creation of Wagner’s Evil Nazi. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

On top of all of these strained conceptual ideas, Ken Russell wanted to create a world of cinematic pop culture. A Surrealist take on both history and the creation of art. And, of course, where their is a pop star there will be sex. Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA Is obsessed with sex and the erotic. It is also obsessed with cartoonish takes on phallus symbology. One can hardly keep up with the number of penis substitutes in the set and costume designs.

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Are those columns or is she just happy to see Franz. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The movie is also quite intent on pursuing yonic symbols. From simple heart shapes to a literal giant vagina that sucks Franz Liszt in to a swooping ride.

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Franz about to be sucked into the tunnel of wet love. LISZTOMANIA, 1975

And, one of the strangest musical numbers involving the invoking of “Liszt True Muse” — his penis. …And, then chopping it off to free him of his ties to the carnal.

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Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Uh, oh. Franz is getting turned on… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz's "genius" grow...

The historical figures / groupies are seeing Franz’s “genius” grow…

Taking a ride on the "genius" of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Taking a ride on the “genius” of Liszt… LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The musical boner...

The musical boner…

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

Oh no! Time to chop it off!

In the end, once we come to the conclusion of Ken Russell’s film, Franz Liszt must die. And, only in death can he truly beat The Evil Wagner Monster. Surrounded by his lovers, muses and even Cosima — he leads his ladies in a rock ballad and then they all zoom off in a rocket back to earth to defeat Wagner’s Nazi Demon and rid the world of Evil.

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad...

In Heaven, Franz leads his lovers in a rock ballad…

Before heading in a rather phallic "Organ" "Rocket" to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

Before heading in a rather phallic “Organ” “Rocket” to kill the Evil Wagner Nazi! LISZTOMANIA, 1975

The camp factor is notched up to “13” by the time Ken Russell’s film comes to a close.

One of the few truly inspired ideas of Russell’s in this movie is the musical score. Rick Wakeman brings his electronica conceptual musicianship to the film and “reconstructs” Liszt compositions into the form of mid-1970’s rock. While not always creating radio-friendly tunes — the idea is inspired and well worth a listen. However, no amount of promotion could push this soundtrack into a hit recording. The soundtrack, along with the movie, has developed a hardcore fan base.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The Rick Wakeman / Roger Daltrey soundtrack album.

The soundtrack itself has an interesting back story. Worried that the music Wakeman and Daltrey had created would never sell, Warners sold the rights to A&M Records who quickly pushed Wakeman to tone down the music actually used in the film in hopes of making it more “commercial” — the result is an uncomfortable mix of classical music and middle of the road rock.

Close to thirty years later, Rick Wakeman, issued a more proper soundtrack of the film via digital version.

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

Rick Wakeman: The Real LISZTOMANIA soundtrack recording, 2003

This version preserves the more intense and insane concept of the musical score.

Erotic Exotic Fantastic - It out Tommy's Tommy.  LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

Erotic Exotic Fantastic – It out Tommy’s Tommy.
LISZTOMANIA promotion, Restricted, 1975

The really odd thing about this horrible film is that it is actually so bad it is entertaining. A jaw-dropping cinematic experience if ever there was one, Ken Russell’s totally unhinged and unhindered vision results in a true cinematic curiosity that can only be considered a massive cinematic error. However, the off-kilter balance of Yuk-Yuk Vaudville jokes, music, Avant-Garde sets and waked-out visuals are truly mind-boggeling. It is hard to not enjoy this film and it does enjoy a strong cult following. A couple of years ago a pristine DVD was issued in the UK featuring a commentary from Mr. Russell himself recorded about a year before his death. Sadly, while his sense of humor is strong — his memory seems to have faded and he offers very little insight into what was going on in his head when he crafted this film. Sadly, the DVD was only released in the UK. However, Warner Brothers Archive had made a remastered and letter-boxed DVD version available on its website. They print it by order — as they do with several Ken Russell titles. Tragically, Warners still refuses to officially re-issue any version of THE DEVILS. That film was released to VHS briefly in a severely censored version in the early 1980’s.

I can’t help but feel a great deal of love for this misguided movie. I am filled with wonder and inspired by the simple fact that a mainstream Hollywood studio not only financed this movie but pushed it forward with a great deal of fanfare. If you get a chance, you might just find yourself enjoying the absolute insanity of Ken Russell’s LISZTOMANIA.

As a side note, while he did promote it at the time of its release, Roger Daltrey has refused to ever publicly discuss LISZTOMANIA since a week after it’s initial release. I find that odd, but then again — not as odd as the movie itself.

It's a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

It’s a wrap! And, Roger Daltrey is proudly carrying off a prop which was missing until a fan of Ken Russell met the director and confessed that he had the giant cock in his backyard. He would not tell Mr. Russell how he came to have it.

And, who knew Franz Liszt spoke with a Cockney accent?!?!!?